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Could your confidants be toxic?

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

No doubt leaders need counselors, but the job of confidant comes with the potential for abuse. You could be the last to know that your relationship with an advisor has become poisonous.

Three kinds of toxic confidants:
  1. Reflectors mirror your narcissistic tendencies (and we all have them), giving you only positive feedback. A reflector can read you for anger or irritability, and soothe you quickly. The most extreme form is called a folie a deux, or “mutual madness.” While you and your counselor rave on, your employees will form two camps: a little cadre that defends you and a larger group that rebels.

  2. Insulators act as buffers between abusive or arrogant leaders and their hapless followers. An insulator will bend over backward apologizing to others for your behavior.

  3. Usurpers are the worst: sociopaths, aka psychopaths, who scheme to take over your authority. They come across as brilliant observers and manipulators. Although suffering from a personality disorder, they’re not crazy; they know exactly what they’re doing. You may not catch them with their hands in the till, but it’s important to rid your shop of them as soon as possible. See Robert Hare’s web site, including his book, Snakes in Suits, at
The five warning signs are:
  1. Employees say you’re inaccessible.

  2. Nobody but your advisor seems to understand you.

  3. Your advisor discourages you from seeking help or advice from others.

  4. The advisor starts running the show.

  5. He or she lays it on thick.
If this looks suspiciously like your situation, here’s what to do:
  • Don’t reproach your confidant. It’ll only raise hackles. Step back and analyze your relationship. Ask “What did I do wrong?” Fight the urge to reject introspection as the opposite of decisiveness.

  • Listen closely to anyone brave enough to warn you of problems, especially if you’re approached by a small group of board members or employees.

  • Consider the possibility that you may be stuck in such a symbiotic relationship that, even if you get rid of this bad actor, you’ll just go out and find another one. Try to learn why you picked a toxic confidant, and you may avoid repeating the mistake.
—Adapted from “Worse Than Enemies: The CEO’s Destructive Confidant,” Kerry J. Sulkowicz, Harvard Business Review.

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